Treasury officials praised for ‘No’ campaign work

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By Thomas Connolly

The civil service team behind the UK government’s anti-Yes campaign in the Scottish referendum have been patted on the back for a splendid job by their peers.

The Treasury’s “Scotland Analysis Programme Team” – little known during the referendum campaign – has been given the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service Award in the annual Civil Service Awards.

According to a glowing review in the magazine, Civil Service World, the senior team “was tasked with producing analysis in the lead-up to the Scottish referendum of how both, Scotland and the rest of the UK, benefit from being part of one country”.

The role of UK civil servants remained murky throughout the referendum campaign. Despite the supposed goodwill of the Edinburgh Agreement, a steady and increasing flood of UK Government propaganda emerged, mainly in the form of media briefings both to the UK and foreign press. These were augmented by a few “dodgy dossiers” about how poor old Scotland couldn’t manage on its own.

Some Better Together figures claimed that the Scottish Government was spending too much civil servants’ time in developing pro-Yes material, as well as the 2013 White Paper.

However, it became clear as the Better Together campaign stepped up its lines of attack that it was being helped significantly by civil servants in the Treasury, FCO and energy departments.

There has been controversy about the number and level of briefings given to foreign embassies and governments by civil servants, usually from the FCO.

Then First Minister Alex Salmond demanded an inquiry into the proactive role Treasury civil servants played in briefing the BBC and other media about proceedings of a RBS board meeting which had not yet concluded. Salmond argued that, apart from displaying an obvious bias, the actions may have been in breach of Stock Market regulations.

The award, created to give “particular recognition for their outstanding achievement in making a difference on an issue of national significance”, was handed to the winners at an awards ceremony at Lancaster House, which is operated by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It will confirm to many that civil servants were actively and heavily involved in the No campaign.

Last March, senior Scotland Office official Chris Flatt revealed to the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee that he had been involved in “dozens” of briefings.

Sitting next to his political boss, Secretary of State for Scotland Alistair Carmichael – who tried to silence him – Mr Flatt confirmed: “I have briefed an official from the Russian embassy and officials from dozens of other embassies.

He stated: “An interesting element of our position is that we have a lot of interest from around the world in the situation in Scotland, and lots of people come to me to ask what the UK Government’s position is. When I explain it, I, as a civil servant, set out the UK Government’s position objectively, and I am also careful to explain that the Scottish Government holds a different position,” added Mr Flatt, deputy director of the Scotland Office.

“I have had such conversations with officials from Russia, America, Canada, Belgium, the Philippines, Kurdistan and Italy. The list could go on and on, because everyone is interested.” His comments clearly discomfited Mr Carmichael, who tried to bring the committee proceedings to a quick end.

At Lancaster House, Cabinet Secretary and civil service head Sir Jeremy Heywood presented the award to Treasury team members Paul Doyle, Will MacFarlane, Shannon Cochrane, and Mario Pisani.

The Treasury was at the heart of the Chancellor George Osborne’s stated determination that the rUK would refuse to share Sterling with an independent Scottish Government, a position reached at the insistence of his Labour predecessor Alistair Darling and backed by current Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls.

At the awards ceremony, Treasury team member Mr Pisani told Civil Service World magazine: “In the Treasury, everyone hates you. We don’t get thanks for anything. This is one occasion where we’ve worked with the rest of Whitehall.

“We all had something in common, we’re trying to save the Union here, and it came so close. We just kept it by the skin of our teeth. I actually cried when the result came in. After 10 years in the civil service, my proudest moment is tonight and receiving this award.”

He added: “As civil servants you don’t get involved in politics. For the first time in my life, suddenly we’re part of a political campaign. We were doing everything from the analysis, to the advertising, to the communications. I just felt a massive sense of being part of the operation. This being recognised [at the Civil Service Awards], makes me feel just incredibly proud.”

His colleague Shannon Cochrane commented: “We’ve learned that it is possible for civil servants to work on things that are inherently political and quite difficult, and you’re very close to the line of what is appropriate, but it’s possible to find your way through and to make a difference.”

Paul Doyle added: “This award is not just for the Treasury, it’s for all the hard work that was done by all government departments on the Scotland agenda.

“In all my experience of the civil service, I have never seen the civil service pull together in the way they did behind supporting the UK government in maintaining the United Kingdom. It was a very special event for all of us.”

Will MacFarlane also gave credit to their Scottish Government counterparts, “in particular the government economic service there, who did their jobs for their ministers. I think over the currency debate in particular both governments put forward their economic analysis, which framed where their governments were coming from in the debate.”

The award, and some of the comments, will raise questions about civil service impartiality and the way public officials were used by Ministers during the campaign. As one observer put it: “Perhaps there should have been an award for the Department of You Couldn’t Make it Up.”